A Chipotle restaurant in Augusta, Maine, filed to unionize Wednesday, a move that could have major ramifications for the Mexican fast casual.
According to Maine ALF-CIO, the employees—who want to be recognized as independent union Chipotle United—are seeking safe, adequate staffing at their store.
Workers recently walked off the job in protest, but returned the following day. The Kennebec Journal reported that most of the employees signed a letter addressed to Chipotle stating concerns about understaffing. The message claims two workers are expected to complete tasks that require six people and that they open the restaurant with three to four people when at least seven should be there.
“The company (Chipotle) is presenting itself as, is what all of us want to be doing,” Brandi McNease, an employee at the store, told The Kennebec Journal. “Serving people good food, healthy food, in an environment they feel good about. We want this, so badly, to be the place it wants to be. We know it’s broke here, and we have a good idea how we can fix it. The customers I’ve seen here the last five years, every week, they’re so important. The people with food allergies come to us because they trust us. We don’t want to take away one of their safest and healthiest options.”
Lisa Schalow, Chipotle's chief corporate affairs officer, said in a statement to CNBC that leadership members "respect our employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act and are committed to ensuring a fair, just, and humane work environment that provides opportunities for all." After the Augusta employees sent the letter, Schalow said Chipotle responded by hiring and training more staff, retraining existing workers, and bringing in new leadership. All of Chipotle's 3,000-plus restaurants are company-operated.
The company does not have any unionized locations, and the Augusta unit is the first to file a petition, CNBC reported. Three years ago, an employee in New York attempted to organize a union, but was allegedly fired because of it. At the time, The National Labor Relations Board argued Chipotle had violated federal labor law.
Chipotle has faced legal issues in the past in regard to how it treats employees. Last year, the brand was ordered to pay $15 million after apprentices accused it of classifying them as salaried employees and exempting them from overtime wages. The payout was for almost 5,000 workers across the country. CNBC noted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the company over a sexual harassment issue at a Washington store and that New York City has sued the restaurant multiple times for violating labor laws.
Unions have roared back into the picture for restaurants, most notably because of Starbucks. A group of Buffalo cafes voted to unionize in late 2021, and now, the movement has reached at least 150 locations in the U.S. The stores are affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.